Mulatu Astatke Interview – for Melbourne International Jazz Festival

Ethiopian bandleader Mulatu Astatke is a musical innovator who’s achievements compare favorably to the likes of Fela Kuti, James Brown, or John Coltrane. In the 90’s Frenchman Francis Falceto began issuing his material via the Ethiopiques series, chronicling the golden period of Ethiopian music in the 60’s and 70’s prior to oppressive communist regime. But it was Jim Jarmusch’s 2005 film Broken Flowers, where he specially wrote in an Ethiopian character as an excuse to use Mulatu’s music, that really broke him in the west

Mulatu refers to his music as Ethio-jazz, an incredible slinky elongated blend of traditional Ethiopian music and western influenced jazz that is simply astonishing. With its incredibly deep groove, fluttering vibraphone and abundance of wind instruments, it’s jazz but it comes from a whole other world, the kind of music that bypasses the brain and connects immediately with the soul.

Mulatu is coming out to Australia for the Melbourne Jazz Festival. Cyclic Defrost were granted 10 minutes on a scratchy line to Ethiopia. Here’s what we were able to salvage:

Bob: How did you come up with Ethio-Jazz?

Mulatu: All musicians have different inspirations and ideas. They all want to be different and creative, and we all want to produce something and give something to the world. That’s the whole idea of going to school, studying and . When I was studying school in America, I had a very interesting teacher and he would say that he could only give me the tools. So I had the tools and I came up with ethio jazz music. That’s what happened. It was about 42 years ago it’s a long time.

We did about 3 LP’s in New York which are so so interesting and very nice and when I really listen back to those tracks after all this time sometimes it’s very interesting to me because it was really something different and something that has contributed to the development of music in the world.

Bob: In recent times you’ve been collaborating with the Helliocentrics. What’s it like working with these different musicians?

Mulatu: Great musicians, really nice guys, very nice to work with. The main thing is that they have a very good understanding of jazz. How I met the Helliocentrics was I usually lecture for Red Bull music academy and I went to Canada to lecture and I met this lady called Karen from England who is a producer. And she liked my lecturing, my music jazz and Ethiopian music and I went back to Africa and I got a call and she said would I like to go and make a concert in England. I said okay I’d be very glad to come over but I don’t have a band. She said I have a band, So that’s how I met the Helliocentrics. I went to England we had a fantastic concert there at a place called the Congo. It was a very successful one, and there was someone from K7 records, so she loved the show, she loved our collaboration together with Heliocentrics and they asked me if we could do a cd. So we did a cd together and the cd became really successful. So our collaboration has been very successful, we’ve been touring a lot together in Europe. We just finished one last week. It’s very nice actually. It’s great.

Bob: So you still play together quite a bit?

Mulatu: Yes we do.

Bob: So I know you’re coming to Australia and you’re playing with a band called the Black Jesus Experience, is that what you do? You travel and then get a band where you go?

Mulatu: No, no. This is the first time I’ve played with a different band. No there’s a band called Either Orchestra in boston, I usually work with them, or the Helliocentrics. The Black Jesus Experience is the first group that I will play with outside the Helliocentrics or Either Orchestra.

Bob: That should be interesting for you?

Mulatu: I think it will. It should be a very nice experience I think, playing with different people. And they’ll have the experience of playing ethio jazz which is so great. It helps for ethio jazz to expand, moving on from different musicians in the world. I think I will enjoy myself, I think it will be great.

Bob: I heard them playing one of your songs on the radio, Yekermo Sew and it sounded fantastic.

Mulatu: That’s great.

Bob: Do you feel like an ambassador for Ethio jazz around the world? Is that something that is important for you?

Mulatu: Well I mean you start something. You create something, I feel grateful for that, and for reaching everywhere in this world that it has. So when you’re creating something and it’s reaching all over the world I’m really proud and happy and I like the experience and also it’s promoting my country, I think it’s fun. I really enjoy it.

Bob: Okay this question is a little cheeky but you’re getting a bit older these days but you seem to be so excited about music that you’re not slowing down at all, it seems like the opposite. Is that true?

Mulatu: Let me tell you something. You can’t be old for music. The older you are, the better the music you can do. You have all that experience. If you read about the past and all the great composers and their works, the best ones happen when you are older and music is a profession that never ever ends. It ends when you die, that’s what I believe. It lives with you everyday. So our life is beautiful always, we never feel old we just keep going on and on and on. And that’s what I think about music.

The Forum
Sun 2 May at 8.00pm
Mon 3 May at 8.00pm

Mulatu Astake (vibraphone, percussion), James Abern, (saxophone)
Black Jesus Experience: Peter Harper (alto saxophone), Ian Dixon (flugelhorn), Thai Matus (keyboard), Nashua Lee (guitar), Cassawarrior (bass), Pat Kearney (drums), Souren Tchakerian (percussion)

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Mulatu Astatke – New York-Addis-London-The Story Of Ethio Jazz 1965-1975 (Strut)

Mulatu Astatke is the father of Ethio Jazz, in this writers opinion one of the most amazing living composers. His vibraphone, conga and various other percussion playing was a real highlight throughout Ethiopiques series, his unique fusion of jazz, funk, latin and African rhythms nothing short of inspired. He’s played with Duke Ellington, had his music in the Jim Jarmusch film Broken Flowers and earlier this year offered up a funky as hell collaboration with UK rare groove merchants the Helliocentrics.

Yet this compilation demonstrates why he is so revered. It opens with possibly his most famous piece, the ultra slinky Yekermo Sew, a cool jazzy beast with one of the longest melody lines this side of Ravel’s bolero. The tune is just so cool, so infectious seemingly without trying that his reputation would be secure on this track alone. Yet the album is brimming with inspired coolness. On the second piece I Faram Gami I Faram he takes a total left turn and comes out with a distinctively Cuban feel to his music, though on the third Emete the horns sound honky like some kind of lively noir juke joint, playing a loose mischievous sound that is brimming with possibilities. And that’s just the first three of twenty pieces, and they’re all amazing, with this loose ramshackle feel that does a disservice to him as it hides the complexity and compositional care.

It’s impossible to get an unbiased review from this writer about Mulatu Astatke. He is one of the masters, and this collection ably demonstrates why.